Back in 1994, the Seattle Mariners moved their Spring Training facility to Peoria, a suburb of Phoenix, sharing the location with the San Diego Padres. Since then, both franchises have made the postseason just four times and while the Padres have a bright future full of prospects and Manny Machado, the $300 million man, the Mariners are trending in the opposite direction.
It seems like a lifetime ago since the franchise’s last trip to the postseason, when the Mariners, led by Ichiro Suzuki and Edgar Martinez, took down the Cleveland Indians in Game 5 of the 2001 American League Division Series. The future certainly looked bright for that team, which just so happened to tie the regular season record for wins with 116 but here we are now, in 2019, and the Mariners are expected to finish another season at the bottom of the division. Like most teams, Seattle has pieces that could prove crucial towards building a winner in the upcoming seasons, young players like outfielder Mitch Haniger and shortstop J.P. Crawford, but while these young bats come into their own, Seattle could soon be saying goodbye to an all-time great – pitcher Felix Hernandez.
Nicknamed “King Felix,” Hernandez is the team’s longest tenured player and tied for second longest in baseball with the Washington Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman – only the St. Louis Cardinals’ Yadier Molina, who is entering his 16th season, has been with the same team longer. Hernandez, who will turn 33 next month, was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Mariners in 2002 and just three years later the Venezuelan native would make his big league debut. Almost immediately, it was apparent the youngster had all the makings of a superstar and by 2010, Hernandez won the Cy Young, posting a 2.27 earned run average in 249.2 innings. He joined Randy Johnson, who did it back in 1995, as the only Mariners to accomplish the feat.
Recently, however, things haven’t been going too well for Hernandez. Earlier this week, Mariners manager Scott Servais told Hernandez that, for the first time since 2008, he will not get the ball on Opening Day. His 10 consecutive starts are the fourth most in MLB history. Starting the first game of the season is certainly a big deal but when Servais added that Hernandez would be the No. 5 starter in the rotation, it felt like the king had lost his crown. It seems that Hernandez is only guaranteed a spot on the major league roster because of his previous accomplishments – that and the fact he’s owed $27 million this season.
It’s a far fall for Hernandez. Let’s not forget, it was just a couple of seasons ago that anytime the ace would pitch, the Mariners would sell tickets to the “Kings Court,” a designated cheering section that wore specialized t-shirts and golden foam crowns, keeping track of every strikeout. But the last two seasons have been downright abysmal for Hernandez, whose name often came up in trade rumors despite no team really wanting to take on his bloated contract. Last season, on a Mariners team that finished just eight games back of the second Wild Card spot at 89-73, Hernandez went 8-14 with a 5.55 ERA and 155 strikeouts in 155.2 innings. If Seattle got anything close to the Hernandez from three seasons prior – 18-9, 3.53 ERA – there’s a good chance the team is staring down the possibility of its first playoff berth in close to two decades.
Set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2020, this is a remarkably important season for Hernandez, who needs to bounce back and show some semblance of the pitcher he once was, or else his career, at least in MLB, will be drawing to a close. But he can’t be happy and, judging by his Spring Training numbers, the Mariners probably aren’t either. While spring ball numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, it is certainly a little alarming that his ERA is 15.95 in the Cactus League. If things don’t go well, he’ll likely be moved to the bullpen, however if he can regain his groove, there are a number of locked-and-loaded, big market teams out there that could use his services, even at a higher price, when July rolls around.
Either way, this looks like it will be the end of Hernandez’s career in Seattle.